United States v. Olson

Facts of the Case

Workers who had been injured in a mine accident in Arizona brought against the United States a suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) (28 U.S.C.S. §§ 1346, 2671 et seq.), which, in 28 U.S.C.S. § 1346(b)(1), authorized private tort actions against the United States under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred.  Among other things, the workers alleged negligence that of the federal mine inspectors. The United States District Court for the District of Arizona dismissed the lawsuit in part on the ground that the allegations were insufficient to show that Arizona law would impose liability on a private person in similar circumstances. The United States Court of Appeals  for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that where unique governmental functions were at issue, the FTCA waived sovereign immunity if a state or municipal entity would have been subject to liability under the law where the activity occurred. According to the appellate court, the FTCA waived sovereign immunity because Arizona law would have made state or municipal entities liable in the circumstances alleged. The United States petitioned for certiorari review.

Question

Did the Federal Tort Claims Act waive the United States’ sovereign immunity in cases where local law would make a state or municipal entity liable?

CONCLUSION

No. In a unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court held that the United States waived sovereign immunity only where local law would make a private person liable in tort, not where local law would make a state or municipal entity liable. Nothing in the FTCA’s context, history, or objectives supported the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the act waived sovereign immunity where the United States, if a state or municipal entity, would be liable. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit treated the act’s requirement that there be like circumstances to require the same circumstances. Private analogies did, in fact, exist for the federal mine inspectors’ conduct.

Case Information

  • Citation: 546 US 43 (2005)
  • Granted: Mar 7, 2005
  • Argued: Oct 12, 2005
  • Decided Nov 8, 2005